New perspectives on familiar space
Species of Space and Other Pieces is the latest addition to an increasingly comprehensive range of Georges Perec's (1936-1982) translated work.
Perec is best known for his encyclopaedic masterpiece Life - A User's Manual and for his linguistic dexterity; this collection brings together for the first time in English many of his liveliest non-fictional writings. At its heart is 'Species of Spaces', a quintessential piece commissioned by Paul Virilio in 1973. It comprises a series of essays reflecting on spatial issues and focusing on the analysis of everyday spaces - or, to use Perec's term (and title of another piece), the infra-ordinary.
Perec employs a rigorous structure of ascending scales, devoting each chapter to a separate species of space, one fitting inside the next like a Russian doll. The first chapter is devoted to the space of the page, within which the book is written, as if space can only be discussed or described once the coordinates upon which this is done have been given.
Then follow chapters on the bed, the bedroom, the flat, the building, the neighbourhood, the city, the countryside, the country, Europe, the Old Continent, the New Continent, the world and space.
Perec opens the book with Lewis Carroll's map of the ocean: to begin with, space is emptiness or a blank sheet of paper; the black perimeter of a square transforms that emptiness into something new with an inside and an outside. Similarly Perec's writing cuts through spaces and becomes the vehicle for experiencing its limits.
'This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page.'
Perec claims we rarely see the 'infra-ordinary' space where the city's small and large violences are sketched.
It requires much attention, to step away from the usual point of view in order to see objectively. He asks naive questions regarding the way we divide and use our spaces: what is the meaning of the dotted line on a map which describes France or 'when, in a given bedroom, you change the position of the bed, can you say you are changing rooms?' He laments the way in which we take space for granted, always assuming we know where we are (at home, at work, in the Metro, in the street) yet we are not so bold with time: 'We're forever meeting people who have watches, very seldom people who have compasses.'
Perec's observations seem at first childishly obvious, offering no generalisations or conclusions. The apparent naivety is his way of avoiding the insensitivity with which we usually view our world, the only way he can expel preconceived ideas: 'It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that's exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we've tried in vain to lay hold on our truth.'
Digressions into autobiography and sketches of future projects are allowed to take their course. He sets practical exercises in remembering and describing spaces and places:
'Describe your street. Describe another. Compare . . . '; he makes an inventory of all the places where he has slept.
As small details and anecdotes accumulate, a vague post-war biography emerges, but readers are always invited to construct their own remembered places, their own sentimental topography.
The last chapter, 'Space', is the most abstract. He cherishes the fragility of the spaces that surround him and suggests that between the page and the world, space has to be claimed, to be lived in, to be talked about and written down, in order to 'try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace , a mark or a few signs'.
These species of spaces, once established, offer the reader a kaleidoscopic, unexpected journey.
'Species of Spaces' was first published in 1974, the same year Perec's friend and sometime collaborator Italo Calvino published Invisible Cities.
Together these short books offer a beautiful and oblique alternative to the assured and ordered worlds presented in so many architectural manuals.
Thomas Emerson is co-editor of 'Scroope 9' (Cambridge Architecture Journal)